Growing up in these mountains and valleys, I saw roadside memorials spring up. A cross, a wreath, an angel, bouquets of flowers — all were placed to mark a tragic death, unexpected. Of course, these were reminders of lives cut short. Perhaps these are markers not only of grief and loss, but also anger and betrayal.
In rural communities, it was likely that the reckless or drunken driver who caused the tragedy was known to the family and friends of the victim. During the 1960s and '70s, populations were less transient and mobile. Families shared one car. As we drove to my grandparents’ home in an adjacent county, I recall seeing these places of homage appear alongside the interstate, cautiously located outside the range of mowers and the road. It seemed that just as soon as a highway crew would remove a memorial, another would appear. In Appalachia, these roadside memorials seem commonplace, even today.
Over the last decade, folks began to use their vehicles as rolling memorials to loved ones with stickers of birth and death dates and names embossed starkly. Arms, chests, backs tattooed with the same remembrances and people become walking bearers of memory and loss.
As I write, I know two things: First, our nation grieves again; second, by the time this piece goes to print, the shock of it will have worn off. A family member of mine shared an article from The New York Times about the El Paso shooting, commenting: “The world is going crazy.” Meanwhile, I woke to NPR’s “Morning Edition.” Their social media department wrote “We never thought we’d have to post this back-to-back, but there’s been a second major mass shooting …” as they posted the story of Dayton, Ohio’s same-day mass murder.
Call it what you will: a dearth of appropriate mental and behavioral health resources, lax gun regulation, a major increase in hatred aimed at various groups of people based on race, sexuality and class. I frankly no longer care what any single one of us wants to blame this mess on. This is a mess. It has been a mess. And to my family member, I wrote, “We have been crazy for a long time, especially since Sandy Hook.”
Kind reader, you recall Sandy Hook, don’t you? A mere six and a half years ago, 20 children and six adults were killed by gun violence at an elementary school in Connecticut. That we could not come up with multiple solutions to care for one another in the face of this phenomenon of mass killings is truly a sign of our madness, our brokenness and our self-destruction.
My daughter just came in the room as her father and I discussed this column. We have not talked about the issue around her. She came and said, “Mommy, guns are what die you.” Somewhere, she has caught a very clear message. Our 4-year-old should not have to encounter a society where she already knows about running, hiding and lying flat on the ground. No child should.
We cannot look at this problem as an either/or. Meaning, this is not either a gun issue or a mental health issue. This is an all-in, every hand on, every person, both/and matter. We are smarter, braver, more hopeful, courageous, creative and caring people than this miry bog of muck we have allowed to claim us.
Let us quit casting blame and calling names. Let’s come up with multilateral. We do not need a land covered in memorials. We need a creative people committed to hope.